Banned book week

Happy Banned Book Week! This week we celebrate the freedom to read freely: a cornerstone of democratic society, an essential right for the development of arts and sciences, and a central source of pleasure in my life. We sympathize with all the curious persons who continue to live in places where their reading choices are controlled by others. Read what you want! Read anything you want!

The what, the why, and the wherefore

As you can imagine, the American Library Association has a thoughtful piece about book banning. Librarians in general, being among the finest of humans, believe passionately in free access to ideas of all kinds. These are some of my fave quotesfrom their page:

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., in Texas v. Johnson 

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Noam Chomsky.

These days, most of the people trying to ban books from libraries are parents trying to restrict their children’s reading by restricting everyone else’s. I thought that’s what communes were for.

A personal note

I learned to read when I was about 4. My parents think I taught myself, but I think my older brother taught me. He would have been 7 and learning to read in school and would never keep such a fantabulous thing to himself. One of the first books I remember reading was My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannet. I loved dragons. When the librarian in the children’s room at the Houston Public Library taught me to use the card catalog, I read all the books involving dragons. I also read Andrew Lang’s collections of fairy tales: The Green Fairy Book, the Blue Fairy Book, etc. Screw reality, seemed to be my early reading policy. (It just occurred to me that the symbol of Gray’s Inn is a gryphon, another fabulous beast. Hm…)

I don’t remember anyone ever taking a book away from me. I don’t imagine it would have gone well, if they had. I read everything that wandered into my midst, including dozens of Louis L’Amour novels when my dad went on a Western kick and the complete works of Isaac Asimov when my brother discovered science fiction. Nobody said, “Those books are for adults; here, take this pribbling children’s book instead.” Nobody said, “That book is too fantastical for your feeble young mind.” My social scientist parents, as far as I remember, exercised no control whatsoever over my reading, unless you count taking me to the library every other week as a form of control. My father is and was always a voracious and eclectic reader; I simply followed in his wake.

The sixteenth century

Religion, politics, and ideology were all much of a muchness in the Tudor and Stuart periods. They had recurring problems with satire, an ever-popular tool for criticizing governments. (George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned in the Soviet Union from 1950-1990. He must have loved that!)

Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus was banned all over Europe, including England in 1512, the year of its publication. “Praise of Folly, written to amuse his friend Sir Thomas More, is Erasmus’s best known work. Its dazzling mixture of fantasy and satire is narrated by a personification of Folly, dressed as a jester, who celebrates youth, pleasure, drunkenness and sexual desire, and goes on to lambast human pretensions, foibles and frailties, to mock theologians and monks and to praise the ‘folly’ of simple Christian piety.” Claremont Colleges Library.

That Claremont Colleges Library link takes you to a list of books banned in the 16th century. Not surprisingly, Machiavelli’s The Prince is on it, but it wasn’t banned in England until just before Elizabeth’s death in 1602. She probably enjoyed it herself and wouldn’t have been threatened by it.

Francois Rabelais was banned in his own time and country as well as in River City. (The Music Man, remember? She reads dirty books!)

The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot was banned in England in 1584 and again in 1603. “The author held that the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft was contrary to the dictates of reason as well as of religion.” Ay-yup. Bacon said, “Let us wait and see if their witchcraft actually works.”

 Last, to my surprise, Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning was banned by the Spanish Inquisition in 1640 (long after his death.) This is his comprehensive catalog of what is known and what ought to be studied and how that study ought to proceed. He goes to great lengths to explain that God is the one made us smart and therefore obviously wants us to do research, but that wasn’t good enough for the Spanish. “No thinking!” They shouted. “Deja de pensar!”

Go forth and read widely

Get out there and read some banned books this week, y’all. I plan to start with Erasmus and Rabelais’ Pantagruel. You can find a more contemporary list at Wikipedia. Try The Canterbury Tales (obscenity) or James Joyce’s Ulysses (more obscenity). Or how about Alice in Wonderland, banned in China for its portrayal of  anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings.

Man, that is inscrutable!

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